I met with G, an asylum seeker from Honduras, in a large open space at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, last month. As a volunteer attorney working with immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it was my job to help her prepare for her initial asylum interview. First, though, I needed to hear her story.
The setting was not ideal, since anyone in the room could overhear what she said, including her two daughters, aged 10 and 12. She began hesitantly, describing how she had been raped by her father when she was 12. Her mother and six siblings, rather than being supportive, blamed G, whose full name I am not using because of her pending asylum claim, and her mother began beating her regularly. When she was 14, her father committed suicide, and the family held her responsible for his death.
In her neighborhood, everyone knew of her abuse history, G told me, and she was considered damaged goods, available to any man who wanted her at any time. She soon met an older man who said he loved her and, for two years she stuck with him. He was abusive, though, and she learned he was married.
As she sat across from me crying, recalling events she’d rather forget, I learned she was now 25 and had four children. As best as I could tell given the timeline, the two daughters sitting nearby had been fathered by her father. Since the girls had never heard these stories, G was ashamed and tried to minimize what she had been through. It took two hours of patient questioning to pull the full story out of her, and as she spoke, her daughters cried.
The process for asylum seekers is long, grueling and often arbitrary.
In the end, it hadn’t been her own troubles that made G flee Honduras. That decision was made in December of last year, she said, when local gang members told her that if she did not make her daughters sexually available to them, all her children would be killed.
I spent 10 days in February interviewing women like G at Dilley. I realize that many Americans suspect that Central American families come to the United States simply because it’s a better place to live, and that their asylum claims are fraudulent. But I wish they could meet the women I spoke with and hear their stories of fleeing to protect their children from imminent danger back home. I believe it would change even the most skeptical minds.
Nearly all of those I met with were, like G, applying for asylum, a process that begins with an interview to establish whether an applicant has a credible fear of returning home. Former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions attempted last year to disallow asylum claims based on fear of gang violence or domestic abuse, but in December a federal judge in Washington blocked the administration from categorically banning such claims. An appeal by the government is pending.
The women I talked to all knew the difficulties they faced, but felt they had no alternative but to try to stay in the United States for their children’s safety.
Two days after our initial meeting, G had her credible fear hearing, in a windowless trailer 50 feet from the detention center. The stakes were high. If she did not persuade the asylum officer she had a justifiable fear her children would be harmed in Honduras, they would all be sent back.
Although I have practiced law for many decades, I’ve never felt as terrified and helpless entering a legal proceeding. I had no idea whether G would be able to tell the hearing officer what she had told me, and I could do nothing to help her. In a regular courtroom, I could ask questions, object and make statements on behalf of my client. Here I was not allowed to speak. I hoped I my presence would provide at least a modicum of emotional support.
The asylum officer explained at the outset that attorneys who urged their clients to tell false stories would be prosecuted and asked G if I had told her what to say. She said no. Then, hesitantly, she told her story.
G passed her credible fear interview, but there is no knowing what will happen ultimately to her or her children when their case is heard in immigration court. What I do know is that they and thousands of other women and children are at high risk of being returned to dangerous situations. Most have little education and don’t understand or speak English, yet they must navigate a complicated legal labyrinth to avoid being sent back to their torturers.
Asylum laws exist to provide refuge to people like G. The United States should not abandon its responsibility to assist them.
Martin Garbus, a trial attorney, is the author of the forthcoming book “North of Havana.”